Saturday, September 24, 2011

Contentment: The Pool at Night

An outdoor pool in the dark is one of my favorite things. I float on my back, ears under the surface to drown out sound, and watch the night sky.

On warm Yucatán nights, when the water temperature feels neither hot nor cold, after a few moments I cease to notice any separation between my skin and the liquid that cradles me. I float effortlessly and lose sense of the water. I bend my knees. Sometimes, arms extended, I bend my elbows and entwine the fingers of both hands across the back of my head. My respiration falls into a rhythm at which, although the buoyancy of my body drops and rises slightly as I breathe in and out, my face never dips below the surface.

Having reached this equilibrium, I drowsily observe the scene; moon, stars, clouds. These objects all have their own motions, but I add to the dynamic once in awhile by moving hands or feet, which sets the upward view slowly whirling and shifting.

Sometimes during this quiet repose I witness a lot of action. High winds aloft set clouds scurrying across the sky. The overhanging branches and fronds of the garden fidget in response to the breeze. Or bolts of lightning from a distant storm create a strobe-light show as they reflect off the thick atmosphere. I always hope to see falling stars. I see satellites.

But this isn't all.

Here in Mérida, owls come out at night. Often they announce themselves with a loud screech. Then a white silhouette glides against the black sky like a paper cutout suspended on a wire in a grade-school play. The bird of prey is patiently searching for its supper, maybe a careless opossum, rat or other small animal.

There are other flying night visitors that actually interest me more than the owls. These are the bats.

Certain bat species eerily pollinate the banana and pitahaya flowers when they are in bloom.  It seems strange because although with their broad, quickly-beating wings they appear to be sizable, active creatures, they make no appreciable noise as they flutter around and back again to visit different blooms.

The bats drink in mid-flight by swooping low enough to skim the water's surface with their mouths as they quickly pass by. For me, floating as I do, this is interesting to witness, especially when a bat takes this flying sip only a foot or two away from my face. Bats make a slight, wet, swooshing sound as they touch the surface, and leave a tiny wake. I have felt the breeze of their wingbeats on my cheek.

When not engaged in observing the nighttime environment around me as I float, I simply relax and let my thoughts drift along with by body. Sometimes I make decisions, solve problems or come up with ideas for blog posts. Other times I lock my gaze on the stars and attempt to quiet my mind and have no thoughts at all.

I suppose there are people who think it all a little odd, or maybe something to try once, but for me frequent sojourns in the pool at night are another of the little pleasures that make life here fascinating.

The idea for this post germinated after I read and commented on a post by my friend Lynette, The Big Ass Belle.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Living Here: Socializing

Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca -- My Mexican social life has gone through an evolution over the past eight years. When I first came to Mérida, my group of friends consisted mostly of other foreigners. Now, although I have expatriate friends and continue to make new acquaintances among that crowd, mostly I socialize with Mexican people. The reasons are varied. An experience a few months ago prompted me to think more about the subject.

I was invited by my friend Victoria to visit her home pueblo of Juchitán, out near the Pacific coast in southern Oaxaca, not terribly far from the border with Chiapas. It is a tiring, winding five-hour bus ride from the city of Oaxaca through the mountains down to this area, where traditional Zapotec culture and language is still an active influence on daily life. 

I took a cab from the bus terminal to Victoria’s house.

This old house was first inhabited by her great grandmother, and has come down through the matrilineal line of the family ever since. Roots run deep here, and although Victoria lives in Mexico City where she has pursued a career in music and acting, she identifies herself first and foremost with this place and as a Zapotec woman.

Not long after I arrived, we rode with Victoria’s nephew and his family out to visit relatives who live a little outside of the town. When we got inside the wall that surrounds the large yard, a dog barked once or twice in welcome, and I could hear the sounds of children playing. We were led to a kitchen-dining area that adjoined a roofed patio.

This was an extended-family gathering of maybe 25 people, consisting of mature brothers and sisters, some of their children, grandchildren, and assorted aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

 The eldest men and some of the women were seated around a long table in the large kitchen. I was provided a chair amidst this group.

The table was scattered with heaping platters of seafood, bottles of beer, and an open bottle of mezcal. Over the next several hours, my plate was never empty for more than a moment before another course was served. The fish soup was followed by caviar and ceviche, shrimp, clams, conch, fish cakes, smoked filets and a variety of salsas and other dishes. My beer was never allowed to warm or become empty, nor was my double-shot mezcal glass. People drank, slowly, but no one appeared drunk or became loud.

I noticed the background sounds of talk and laughter. There was no knot of kids sequestered in a room staring like zombies at a big flat screen, X-Box or computer. The children were all playing together outside. No one was checking their cell phone or sending text messages. The music we had came from one of the older uncles who crooned and played the guitar. At times the others stopped conversing to listen or join in the singing, which was sometimes in the Zapotec dialect. Lots of applause and appreciative cheers followed favorite songs.

For cool-blooded, less-demonstrative northerners who have not pariticpated in these kinds of gatherings, they may present a challenge to notions about personal space. There is plenty of hugging, kissing and touching going on. There are lots of people around, and they like to be close together. And being together was the entire purpose of this afternoon. There was nothing to get in the way of that goal.

I have gravitated increasingly toward this type of socializing as I live longer in Mexico and meet more people. I think in part that is because the Mexican parties are gatherings of family and old friends, and most of the foreigner parties are given by people who do not have family or life-long friends around. For this reason and, I suppose for reasons of culture, the foreigner parties are of a different sort.

At "mix and mingle" foreigner parties I occasionally attend in Mexico, I sometimes feel like the goal is to talk to an individual for a couple of minutes, make a good impression, and then continue to "circulate" in order to chit-chat with everyone else before the evening is over. It seems as if my job is to do a little personal PR presentation to each one I meet. In this environment, only superficial interactions are possible. My wallflower tendencies and dislike of small talk have always inhibited me at these types of social events.

In comparison, the Mexican gatherings are leisurely and more relaxed. People don't arrive punctually, but once they've settled in they tend to hang out for a long time. The importance of family and long-term relationships is obvious in the affectionate way people interact. There is a group spirit. Hospitality and manners are integral and highly-refined arts. And often, cultural roots and history are living participants in the here and now.

These are people who know who they are. Here you encounter them among the folks who know them best. Falseness and superficiality are just about impossible.

In these gatherings, there is plenty of time for an in-depth conversation or to listen in on an intricate discussion between others. People may sing or quote snatches of poetry. There is time to not talk and simply enjoy moments, savor the good food, listen to the words of a song, or to soak up the friendliness. There is time to sit in the garden and watch the children play.

On this particular occasion, in a situation where I was a stranger, I was treated like a long-lost relative. I was told with complete sincerity that I was "in my home," and I was made to feel that way.

That's what makes the difference.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Learning and Friendship with Bloggers

I am not much of a joiner, and prefer to socialize and work in small groups. So last year when I was invited not only to attend, but to present to the Third Annual Latin American Bloggers Conference, I didn't immediately jump at the chance.

However I went. I had a great time, learned a lot, and formed some new friendships.

All interested persons are invited to attend the fourth installment of this event, which in the past has attracted people from all around the Yucatán Peninsula, other parts of Mexico, Canada and the United States.

The meeting takes place in Mérida, Yucatán on Saturday, Nov. 5. The main session begins at 9:30AM and will run until about 6:00PM, with lunch scheduled from 2:00 to 4:00. Optional social events are scheduled Friday and Saturday nights.

The agenda includes presentations and roundtables on various aspects of blogging, and special sessions for those working in Blogger or Wordpress.

There is no cost to participants. The event is run by volunteers and the venue and technical support is lent or donated.

The Mérida area has a lot to offer out-of-town conference participants who choose to make a long weekend or vacation out of their visit. A variety of music and cultural events, great food, archaeological sites, museums and beaches are all easy to come by around here. Comfortable, reasonably-priced accommodations are plentiful near the conference site in the heart of Mérida's centro historico.

You can view the conference blog here, and email your reservation or ask questions at the email link on the blog or at:

I hope to see many of you there.

Friday, September 9, 2011

I Still Miss Alberto

The Yucatecan painter Alberto Castillo Ku passed away last year on Sept. 14. He was a true original and my good friend. In observance of the anniversary I am repeating a post I wrote last November in tribute to Alberto.

* * *

I saw an enchanting painting, a colorful and mysterious portrait of a woman, hanging on the wall of a house in Mérida a few years ago. I asked my host where it came from, and learned that the artist lived not far from me, and although in his eighties was still busy working. Not long afterward, I met the man at a social gathering. His whispy hair was windblown, his precariously-perched glasses held together with adhesive tape, and his clothes spotted here and there with paint. The artist handed me his card. The black on white card pictured an artist's palette and brush and said simply, Alberto Castillo Ku, Pintor.

A few weeks later I called the phone number on the card and Alberto Castillo invited me over to his house in San Sebastian. As we got acquainted that afternoon we touched upon many subjects. We looked at paintings and photos and slowly wandered through his ancient, eccentric house and extensive garden. He cooked, and while eating the lunch we shared a couple of large bottles of beer. Over the next several years, visits like this one to Alberto's house became a regular and unforgettable part of my life.

Alberto Castillo was born in Mérida in 1920, and even as a child he liked to draw. When Alberto was about ten years old, his father bought the old colonial house in San Sebastian where Alberto lived off and on for the rest of his life. As a young man he was passionate about art, and against the advice of his father, decided to go to Mexico City to find work and study. There one day he wandered by a studio where Diego Rivera, probably the best-known and loved Mexican artist, was teaching. Alberto started talking with Diego, and was invited to sit in on the class. This began an exciting time in Alberto's life. He was a young man from an isolated provincial capital, suddenly immersed in cosmopolitan Mexico City of the 1940's. Communists, Nazis, spies, artists -- a fabulous mix of interesting figures -- were part of the scene there. Alberto lived near Diego and Frida Khalo, with whom he began to socialize. Included in this social set were the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias and his wife Rosa, the American writer Alma Reed, who was once the lover of executed Yucatecan socialist Felipe Carillo Puerto, and many other figures in Mexican and international art, intellectual life and politics of the era.

After many years in Mexico City, Alberto married and was living in Acapulco, where he had a studio and small restaurant. Acapulco then was a trendy hot spot, with foreign tourism just taking off in the area. Movie stars, the rich and the famous all made appearances in Acapulco, and Alberto's place was right in the thick of things. Then suddenly, after giving birth to their two sons, Alberto's wife became ill and quickly died.

At this point in the story there are gaps in my knowledge, partially because I never asked a lot of questions when Alberto began telling stories, and perhaps because my memory for the details a few years later is not all that good. After leaving Acapulco, Alberto made a living mostly from art and his culinary skills, working in Mexico, many years in the United States where he made many lifelong friends and became fluent in English, and finally returning to Mérida to live with and help his aging parents. For many years Alberto ran a restaurant out of the Mérida family home. And always, always, until unable to during the last few years of his life, he painted.

All of the images in this blog post are from paintings sold to me by Alberto Castillo. Most are works completed in the later years of his career, when his skills, due to arthritis and deteriorating vision, were past their peak. I have seen a number of examples of work from the height of his abilities that would have made his old teacher Diego proud. The sense of light and energy, the sensuality, presence and fine techinque in some of these works are witness to the mastery Alberto achieved in his art, thanks to talent, passion, hard work, and to teachers like Diego. Although most of my "Castillos" were painted in the later years of his career, I have a couple examples of earlier work. Below is a detail of a 1970's painting of a woman from Chiapas "in the style of Diego," as Alberto put it, which hints at the life he could project and attention to detail that he was capable of in his prime.

Alberto painted original religious and Mexican subjects and to pay the bills in later years also made copies of paintings for churches and individuals. Yucatecan daily life and Chiapas were favorite subjects of paintings. Above, a late painting of Chiapanecan musicians that hangs in my living room. At right, a portrait of a young man from Chiapas. Above, near the top of this post, a Chiapanecan woman on her wedding day.

His Catholic faith was important to Alberto, and it was a significant influence in his art. This portrait of Jesus and the Sacred Heart is one that he painted for his mother and which hung in her room for many years.

Alberto's painting of a Mestiza preparing tortillas over a wood fire hangs in my kitchen

Alberto's studio was located in a roofed patio area at the back of the house. It was a hodge-podge of paintings, sketches and sculptures, memorabilia, tools, bundles of canvas and wood for stretchers, works in progress, paint tubes and containers of other liquids, brushes, and many years' accumulation of bric-brac and found objects that one day might be useful in a project. The area was bright and airy, which made it a good place for working. And like the rest of the house, the studio leaked like a sieve in the rain.

I recall an afternoon in the dining room. We were seated at the table, which was always set with a complete service for eight, plates on metal chargers, cloth napkins, wine glasses and other service items, 
along with a collection of unrelated objects that over time had accumulated here. The afternoon was darkening as a storm approached, so our meal was illuminated by the chandelier, which had been manufactured from an artificial Christmas tree, complete with decorations and lights, hanging upside down over the table. Alberto opened a bottle of beer and toasted the meal amidst rolling thunder. Just as we started to eat, the heavens opened and in a moment rain began to pour through cracks in the roof. One cascade began to fall right in the middle of Alberto's bald head. Alberto grabbed a baseball cap that just happened to be hanging on the back of the next chair and put it on. Then he looked at me for a second or two and laughed. "C'est la vie," he commented. We continued eating without further talk about the weather. After finishing, we walked through the house gathering the various buckets and pans, strategically situated under the worst leaks, and emptying the accumulated water in the garden.

I regret not having photos of the house. During the period I was spending a lot of time with Alberto, I was not doing much photography. I always said to myself that I ought to photograph his house, but 

preferred to enjoy his company in the moment rather than try to make images. The cluttered house and 

garden were a museum of more than a century of family life and his interests that included art by his father, son and many friends, photos, antiques, stained glass, valuable religious art and artifacts, various collections, and furniture manufactured by Alberto himself. There were dining rooms whose roofs had gone years ago, but which were still furnished with tables and chairs from the long-closed restaurant. In one corner of the grounds lay a huge mound of wine bottles, the accumulation of decades in the restaurant business and enjoying fine drink. In the back grew a large ceiba tree, which is the sacred tree of the Maya people, with a bench underneath. Once Alberto told me that there was a baby buried in that spot, apparently the dead infant child of a young relative or family friend who stayed with the Castillo Ku family when she got "in trouble," many, many years ago.

There are more stories I could tell about Alberto Castillo. We went out drinking at his favorite bar, the expat hangout Pancho's in downtown Mérida. We took the bus and rode on errands in the city. We went out to dinner. I bought large paintings and before I had a car carried them across a good piece of Mérida centro to my house in the heat of the afternoon, prompting interesting conversations along the way. One painting, the large oil of Saint Michael with which Alberto poses in the photo of his studio above, was once lost when a hurricane-tossed tree landed on and collapsed the roof of Alberto's house. The storm then sent his possessions flying all over the neighborhood. The painting was later returned to Alberto by a friend who had found it. It now hangs in my front room.

Alberto loved fruit and knew a lot about plants, which he was always giving to me. Roots from plants growing on an outer wall of the house broke through the wall and hung down inside the bathroom. Alberto didn't cut them. Instead he painted a woman's lips and eyes on the wall and incorporated the roots as the hair in a new piece of living art, which happened to be right over the toilet. Every so often when I used the bathroom I noticed how the woman's hair had grown.

There was the story of the son whom Alberto had never met, the product of a love affair with an American woman years ago. His obvious pride in his grandson in France, also an artist, who had come to visit. Stories of friends who'd passed on, of whom there are many when a person reaches his late eighties. Through it all, Alberto's attitude seemed to be to enjoy life as much as possible. He was always saying with a smile, "such is life," as if to shrug off the problems and sadness that we all deal with at times. His other favorite saying, whenever someone thanked him, was, "don't say thanks, say more."

One of the last times I was with Alberto he suddenly looked at me, gave me a bear hug, and told me, "I love you." I could only reply, "I love you too, Alberto." About that time Alberto stopped painting and was having more pronounced health problems. He was no longer taking care of the house and was less able to handle his own personal care. I offered to help in the house but he mostly refused. Not long after this, one of his sons, who for some time had been trying to convince Alberto to move in with him over in Puerto Morelos, moved Alberto to a nursing home where his needs could better be taken care of.

Earlier this year a 30-year-old bonsai flamboyant tree that Alberto had given me suddenly dropped its leaves and dried up. I felt guilty because I had been gone a lot and feared that my lack of attention had been the cause of the loss. Then, when I heard belatedly of Alberto's passing, I thought again of that tiny, gnarled old tree that Alberto had started from a seed and taken care of for 25 years before he gave it to me, and I thought, "C'est la vie. More, Alberto, more."

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Culture Shock

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida -- More and more now, when I go north to visit the 48 contiguous United States I experience culture shock.

I guess it's due to two things. First, I spent a lot of time living in small-town Alaska, in itself very different from a lot of what you find in the rest of the U. S. Add to that the fact that I have lived in Yucatán full time since 2005.

I just spent a week in this well-to-do area of South Florida, living for that time much as a resident there might. I woke and got ready each morning, climbed into a car and merged with commuters on eight lanes of highway traffic. I negotiated congestion, a great many parking lots, and chilly, air-conditioned malls. Later each day I returned to the highways for the commute home.

Oh yeah, how about the Kardashian sex tape?

What I can't stop noticing in areas like this is that much of the human-made environment puts the convenience of automobiles before that of people. Public transportation is not very good. In many areas it's hard to be a pedestrian. At one point I decided to walk over to a nearby mall, craving exercise and thinking it was silly to drive the car only a few blocks. What I discovered in an area that looked like an inviting and likely area for footpaths, with luscious greenbelts and plantings all around, is that there were not always sidewalks, crosswalks or pedestrian signals.

...of course you know the latest on Justin and Selena...

I found that because cars are king, it is difficult and a little dangerous to walk in this neighborhood. I began to wonder why. Is it because, in this area where Bentleys, BMWs and Mercedes seem to be typical family cars, no one walks? Or is the intention to keep pedestrians (read: poor people) out? I noticed that a lot of people stared at me from their cars as I walked in the greenbelt alongside the "parkway." I would not have been surprised if a police patrol had stopped and told me that pedestrians are prohibited there. I guess, in this area where even the lawn maintenance guys seem to be driving shiny new $50,000 pickups and the whole environment and culture is designed for the convenience of motorized transport, that someone walking along the street seems a little strange.

...and everyone's talking about Beyonce's "bump."

Despite the beautifully-maintained greenbelts and some lovely natural areas and parks, what I cannot stop seeing everywhere here is huge expanses of intentionally-created desert. I'm mostly talking about pavement, but even some of the green part, that which is sprinklered, fertilized, mulched and beautifully manicured, is apparently largely devoid of wildlife. It's all remarkably clean. Clean to the point of sterility.

...Tiger's house is behind that wall...

I feel a bit out of place here. The car and shopping culture is something I never embraced, the facades of ostentatious wealth are something I don't really understand, and since I don't watch television or read celebrity news I feel pretty much like a foreigner to much of the pop culture up north.

I arrived home in Mérida two days ago. I am always relieved to return to the human-scale, less ordered, and much less artificial world of Yucatán.